Friday, February 1, 2013

Digital Natives - no not really #edcMOOC

In  my continuing quest to keep up with change, I have signed up for the  Coursera E-Learning and Digital Courses MOOC, #edcMOOC,  with over 40,000 other students.  This class is even larger than a freshman entry-level seminar at Berkeley!

This week we started out with readings and films providing a historical perspective on digital progress as creating either utopias or dystopias.  One reading that really caught my attention, as an educator, was Mark Prensky's now fairly dated article, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants."

Mark Prensky would argue that in a district such as ours, with many “well-seasoned” teachers, it is likely that we are doing our students a disservice and should dramatically change their teaching methods because with the ensuing age-difference between teachers and students and the fact that our teachers were born pre-internet, probably our teachers and students don’t speak the same "language."  Our students have grown up with digital technologies.  They have never known a world without the internet, and they intuitively use cell phones and iPads, practically from birth.  Our students speak tech, they are Digital Natives.  Our teachers, on the other hand, remember the Dewey decimal system.  They learn about smart phones and iPads as they make the decisions to buy them.   They have to learn the new language of technology.  They are Digital Immigrants.  The languages these two groups, who meet in the classroom, speak are different.  In Mr. Prensky's words, “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.”
As a teacher who usually jumps on the bandwagon of those arguing for more technology in the classroom, I find myself in the odd position of disagreeing with Mr. Prensky about much of his article.  While I agree that today’s students have been exposed to more technology than ever before and that they spend more hours on their phones, pods, tablets, computers and gaming devices than ever before, I disagree that this is sufficient to make them Digitally Literate.  I also disagree that our teachers are ill-prepared to teach them.  We are well-prepared as teachers and can learn about today's ever-changing technologies hand-in-hand with our students.
First, I don't believe today's student's are Digital Literates.  Just because students today are exposed to digital technology does not mean that they have the skills to use it well.  Today’s students may have some social language that they use with their digital devices, but they don’t necessarily know how to use that language well.  Moreover, students aren’t coming to school ready to use digital media to communicate with academic or professional language.  
As an example, a child with a smart phone can quickly learn how to get a Facebook account, but that child doesn’t automatically have the knowledge to use it safely.  He or she needs to be affirmatively taught the basics: what you post on-line is never private, you shouldn’t say anything on-line you wouldn’t say in front of your grandmother, you can’t trust people just because they are “friends,” and it’s not wise to give out private information to strangers.   On a more academic level, that same child with the smart phone may be able to easily access Google, but that child may not be able to fashion a well-crafted Boolean search for a research project, or have any way to assess whether a source is reliable, or to attribute an image taken from the internet.  These skills must be taught.  Yes, the student can use a smart phone, but that child is by no means Digitally Literate.
Second, I don't think teachers have to overhaul their teaching methods.  Prensky argues that teachers must learn to teach in the language and style of their students, seeming to say that the old way of teaching is no good anymore.  He goes as far as to suggest adapting the curriculum to video games.  I hardly think that he is seriously suggesting that the entire curriculum be overhauled, but I think his comment bears consideration.  As important as it is for us to introduce technology into our classrooms and teach our students to be real Digital Literates, it is important to maintain our sanity.  Yes, we need to "Just Do It," as the Nike slogan suggests.  We need to pilot iPads: try new cooperative projects, investigate teaching with apps, learn the technology, make the mistakes, but the new technology needs to be integrated into what we are teaching now.  Students cannot learn by video game alone.
There are times when it is most appropriate for students to interact with technology to learn and there are times when students need to learn the old-fashioned way.  Prensky argues that Digital Natives like to "parallel process and multi-task" and that they "thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards."  I would  argue that this is not the way all work is going to be done in the real world.  Today's students also need to learn how to slow down and spend time reading the old-fashioned way.  They need to go through text to find support for their answers. They need to take the time to do a comparative analysis of different author's or scientist's opinions about a subject.  There are researchers who spend years on projects.  We need to train our students to spend time working and studying.
We all know there will be times when there is no internet.  Sometimes there is no power.  The real hero will be the person who can still do math then.  If we all rely on our computers to do our thinking for us, who will be thinking outside of the box?
 We also need to realize that there are always going to be different types of students in the classroom. There are going to be some students for whom digital technologies are not the answer.  There are some students who are going to prefer reading from a book and writing with pencil and paper.  These options should be available for them.   
Fortunately, teachers are pros at being teachers.  We can arrange times for both short and long-term projects, individual and collaborative work.  We can help students learn to live in the new world with digital technology without losing the other academic skills that will continue to be useful to them. What is unique in the digital arena perhaps, because students have grown up using digital technology,  is that in this case, teachers do not have to learn the technology in advance to teach it to the students, they can focus on the pedagogy, the uses of the technology.  
Teachers are not then Digital Immigrants to be disparaged, but taking the Nike analogy a bit further, as long as they are willing to "Just Do It" and learn with their students, they are actually Digital Coaches or Mentors.  Students and teachers are not adversaries across a language divide, but collaborators who can work together towards excellence in the 22nd Century.